Google's 13% Emissions Rise: Can AI & Data Centres be Green?

Data centres are driving a big increase in Google's GHG emissions
Google's latest environmental report highlights a 13% increase in GHG emissions driven by AI and data centre energy use. Is sustainable AI possible?

Google’s 2024 Environmental Report reveals a concerning 13% rise in greenhouse gas emissions over the past year, largely due to energy consumption from AI and data centres. 

Google CSO Kate Brandt and SVP, Learning & Sustainability, Benedict Gomes, acknowledge the challenges despite ongoing efforts. They state: “A sustainable future requires systems-level change, strong government policies and new technologies. We’re committed to collaboration and playing our part, every step of the way.”

Kate Brandt, Chief Sustainability Officer, Google

However, the report does offer some positive news. Google has achieved 90% carbon-free energy in 10 grid regions, contracted 4GW of clean energy generation capacity and implemented AI-powered fuel-efficient routing, reducing greenhouse gas  emissions by 2.9 million metric tons. 

Additionally, the company has  almost doubled its water replenishment portfolio and achieved 100% plastic-free packaging for the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro.

The double-edged sword of AI and data centres

AI and data centres are essential for Google’s operations, but they also contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Kate and Benedict highlight efforts to mitigate this impact.

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They said: “Scaling AI and using it to accelerate climate action is as crucial as addressing its environmental impact.” They emphasise the development of the Trillium, a sixth-generation TPU that is more than 67% more energy-efficient than its predecessor and other practices that can reduce AI training energy by up to 100 times and emissions by up to 1,000 times.

Google data centres are approximately 1.8 times more energy efficient than typical enterprise data centres. Additionally, AI has the potential to mitigate 5% to 10% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The report identifies three key areas where AI is advancing climate action:

  1. Organising information: AI-powered fuel-efficient routing analyses traffic, terrain and vehicle engines to suggest the most efficient routes, reducing greenhouse gas emissions significantly
  2. Improving prediction: A global hydrological AI model predicts floods up to seven days in advance in more than 80 countries, using publicly available data
  3. Better optimisation: The Green Light tool helps optimise traffic light timing, reducing stop-and-go traffic and fuel consumption.

Challenges and the path forward

Despite these advancements, the report highlights ongoing challenges. In 2023, data centre electricity consumption grew by 17%, even with a 100% global renewable energy match. The future environmental impact of AI remains uncertain, influenced by AI adoption rates, mitigation strategies and ongoing innovation.

Benedict Gomes, SVP, Learning & Sustainability, Google

The report calls for systemic changes to address issues like grid decarbonisation, evolving regulations and the availability of carbon-free energy.

Google remains optimistic about AI’s potential to drive positive change but acknowledges the need for collaborative efforts to navigate the evolving landscape. As Luke Elder, Lead, Sustainability Reporting at Google, shared on LinkedIn: “This year's report is a testament to the passion and dedication of our teams, who are working tirelessly to develop innovative solutions for a low-carbon, sustainable world.”

Luke emphasised transparency and accountability, concluding: “We believe in transparency and accountability and we're committed to collaboration and playing our part, every step of the way.”

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